Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Bite Of The Apple

Once upon a time, Hebrew legend set the first woman's name as Eve, and now we can't get rid of the damned thing. Worse, because she's blamed for tricking Adam into eating the apple, hardly anyone names their kid Eve. It's just one or two steps up from Cain, or Herod, or Jezebel.

Of course, EVE is completely different. It's an acronym, standing for something space-oriented, and is the name of a fairly popular (and exceedingly deep) MMORPG that I haven't gotten around to playing yet. Mostly because I'm a wuss.

However, I seem to be a major sucker for boardgames based on MMORPGs, with mixed success. WoW: The Boardgame I like quite a bit, WoW: The Adventure Game I will enjoy playing with younger kids, and Age of Conan was simply a mess. So why not invest in one more, in this case EVE: Conquests.

EVE has gotten a lot of criticism on the 'geek for some poor component choices, for being a set of mechanisms in search of a game, etc. Certainly it didn't have the sharpest graphic designer in many respects, and the idea that lightweight poker chips are your "units" is kind of lame when you consider how many games out there have a ton of plastics (although, to be fair, Axis and Allies uses poker chips too, although they go under specific unit types).

So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to give this a try with Jesse in our occasionally regular weekday gaming. And you know what? I think there's a lot of promise here, certainly more than the 'Geek Gods were willing to give it. I'll note now that we played two two-player games, one to 20 points and one to 10, with Jesse taking the long game and me taking the short because of a poor choice on Jesse's part at the end of the game, otherwise I think it would have been a bit of a tossup. I should also mention that Jesse has played the online version, while I haven't touched it (but may at some point).

EVE is a scalable strategy game for 2-4 players, with each player taking the role of one of the various factions in the online game (although there is no differentiation between these factions at all other than color). The game has variable length, with players choosing to play to a set VP amount or to a time limit. The board is made up of a set of circular spaces, each representing a hefty chunk of territory in the online game - unlike many MMORPGs that use multiple servers, there is only one server in EVE so everyone plays in the same "space" and that requires it to be enormous. Each space is color coded based on how far it is from the core of Known Space, with the outer systems being worth more points than inner ones. You take the highest value color space out of play as you reduce the number of players, so we only played with the Green (1vp) and Blue (2vp) spaces.

There is no wealth of units, in fact your Giant Poker Chips In Space units are only differentiated by whether or not they are in a space that you control (denoted by your chips being on the bottom of the stack) or they are "agents" in systems someone else controls. This will have an effect in combat, maybe, and it also acts a way to "encircle" systems so that you can place outposts on them. To be honest, I felt that this was a plus for the game - it strips it down to a point where you aren't concerned so much with your economy as you are with the essential factors needed to win.

The "economy" in the game is based on placing "outposts" in systems you control. For every system that you control that has all adjacent systems controlled by you or that have an agent on them, you may place an outpost of one of three colors that map to the various actions and action cards you get as the game progresses. One of the beefs with the game is that it's very easy to build up enough outposts to fund whatever you want to do in the game, but what those reviews are missing is that when you lose a system with an outpost to your opponent, they gain VPs and you lose them, so you don't place outposts lightly. I'll get back to the economy in a bit, so bear with me.

However, no one gets any VP until they start taking the spaces identified on the Political Track. Here, I'm not quite convinced that this isn't the problem with the game, but I don't have enough experience to tell just yet. Here's how it works: The PT sub-board has nine spaces, three wide by three deep. The X axis is color, based on there being three similarly colored areas surrounding the board. The Y axis is simply a series of letters, A - B - C. The various systems have cards that go on the PT based on where they are on the map, so that Red cards will be near the Red nebula (more or less). At the start of the game, players turn over a number of cards and then mark them with the appropriate lame cardboard punch out, and this is where the components really *are* weak. Suffice it to say that the problem is removed simply by placing these punch outs in plastic stands like you'd use for the figures in Talisman and there won't be a problem any more.

To score VPs, you simply need to control two of the systems displayed on the PT that match either color or letter and place outposts on both. You may take the two cards from the display (gaining VP based on the *system* color rather than the PT color) during a specific type of action. Again, if a player takes a system from you that had an outpost on it, they can take a PT card from you that is of that system color and with it the VP, so you want to choose your systems carefully. There are also some action cards (discussed below) that let you improve your score for certain combinations (like claiming two "C" systems). In a short game, which systems come up has a big effect on who wins, as it's possible that you'll get the necessary PT cards dropped in your lap, but the PT colors do give you some chance to know a general idea of where the VP systems will drop. There are four systems on each PT space in the two-player game, and it goes up as you add players.

The game progresses through a fairly clever "calendar" mechanism. In essence, each player will do three different types of actions as the game moves forward, and each corresponds to one of the outpost color types:
  1. Development - This action allows you to place units in empty systems adjacent to controlled systems (no leapfrogging, you must control the system at the start of the turn), or to place agents in areas adjacent to controlled areas, with a limit of one unit per region per turn. Like all other actions, the number of actions you take during a Development turn depends on how many blue resources you committed to it the last time you took the action. You can also claim two PT systems as mentioned above during this action.
  2. Production - This action is very easy - you get a set number of units that you can place in controlled systems, no more than three per.
  3. Logistics - The most complex action. You can draw action cards, all of which correspond to one of the three action types in this list. You can also move units from one area on the board you control to any other areas you wish, although once they move to an area no units in those areas can do anything else that turn. You can also attack an adjacent system from a controlled system.
Each action has three "stages" to it that dictate both how far in the future you'll be doing this action again as well as how many things you can do in that action, each determined by how many of that particular resource you devote to it. For example, Production will produce 3 units in 3 turns if you don't give any resources to it. Give one bronze resource at the time you take the action, and you'll do the next Production action in 4 turns but get 5 units. Apply two resources, and you place 8 units after 5 turns. Development is the same way - you get to do more things, but only over more time. Logistics is a bit of a no-brainer - you get more things to do in a shorter time.

When I say "do x actions in y turns" that's not completely true. The game is divided up into "months" and the delay is given in months rather than specific turns. Each player has a marker for each action type (color coded) so once you take the action you decide how many resources you want to commit to it. Let's say you've just taken your production action and it's January (and the months are indeed marked using the traditional Western calendar). If you decide to take the base action of gaining three units, that will place your marker forward to April, which is three months ahead. There are six slots in April, and you'll place your marker in whichever slot is currently at the end of the line for that month. If, instead, you devoted two resources, you'd instead place your Production marker in June, five months ahead.

Which is, actually, one of the more interesting parts of the game. Because of the way the movement rules work, you can't move then attack, sort of like Paths of Glory. However, if you first do a Production action followed immediately by a Logistics action, you can build units in the space you wish to attack from first, then attack in Logistics. You may also want to get in your action before another player does to beef up your defenses. I suspect there's a lot of depth to understanding the calendar and the action sequencing subsystem, just as there is to deciding when it's best to place an outpost. I should also note that if you have two actions back to back in the same month, you may choose to execute them in whatever order you choose, but it has to be in the same specific month, and you don't actually change the order of the markers on the calendar (to avoid gamey tactics if you had three markers in a row, which is unlikely but possible).

The action cards, which you draw using Logistics actions, do a lot of different things, from adjusting the position of action markers on the calendar, to letting you adjust units prior to combat, to making your agents more powerful, to affecting combat in various ways. Let me simply say that these cards can be extremely powerful, or they can be essentially useless. However, you may discard an action card to gain an additional sub-action, such as placing an extra unit during Production, or even drawing another action card. The cards are divided into three groups corresponding to the various actions/resources, so there's some sense of what kind of card you're getting. Also, some cards require you to use a resource to play them, and the resource stays as long as the card stays. In our games, while we at times had three or four cards up in front of us, we didn't have too much trouble remembering what our capabilities were. With four players and more cards, it might me a trickier proposition.

Finally, combat. When you fight, you get one die for each unit attacking or defending, and agents don't count unless you have an action card that says they do. When you pick your dice, which is done secretly, you pick from three flavors - attack, defense, and tactics. However, if you have more agents in the fight (for the defender, that means an agent in the system the attacker is coming from), you can ask your opponent how many of a specific type of die they will choose. For example, if I'm picking five dice, and you have the agent advantage, you can ask how many defense dice I'll be picking of those five. Defenders also get a bonus die if they have an outpost in the system.

You lose one unit (not agent) for each red hit symbol your opponent rolls, and save one for each blue shield symbol you roll. The tactics dice are a little more involved, with you and your opponent comparing the total number of tactics symbols rolled, and the winner gets to take a special action, which can mean adding a hit or a shield to their totals, or pulling a unit out of harm's way. If either side loses all of it's units, they lose that system and the bottom-most agent will take control, and any outposts are lost. If you have any PT planet cards of that color and lost an outpost, your opponent gets to take one of those cards and the associated VP, so where you attack from and where you attack are very important.

And that's more or less the game.

My impression was that the criticisms of the game are at times on the money, at times simply demonstrating that people don't understand how the systems work together. The components are rightfully criticized - it's difficult to see the names of systems on the board, and the PT system markers are an exercise in how *not* to design components, but in the former case it doesn't come up all the time, and in the latter case all you really need is a set of plastic stands to make the markers vertical and the problem is solved (although I can't help you if there's a color-impaired player involved). The player aids that list the various actions and levels could be more clearly delineated, but once you understand that the silver iconed number refers to sub-actions (matching your units) and the action-type colored number refers to time (matching your action markers on the calendar), it's very usable. Otherwise, I think the components are fine, poker chips and all. Because of the large number of units that can build up in a given system, the only difference between this and A&A is that there isn't a specific unit type on top of the chips, and since there's only one unit type it doesn't really matter that much.

The rules are just fine, if a little convoluted. As you can tell from my description above, there's a lot of interplay between the systems so there's really no good linear way to describe the game. I'd rather see a portrait-oriented ruleset, and I really hate white type on black backgrounds, but these are minor preferences. When it came down to it, we were able to find rules as necessary, and most of the time we didn't need to look things up repeatedly as the various systems are pretty clean.

So what did I like about the game? First off, it's elegance. I'm not a big fan of strategy games with a major economic component, like A&A where you buy different units based on how many resource production points you generate. Here, it's stripped down to basics but not so much that there's nothing to the game. I also like that the game seems to require more careful consideration of your actions than you'd get at first blush, as evidenced by the calendar action sequencing system and the fact that outposts are a blessing and a curse. I also like that you have a certain amount of compensation for chaos elements, such as being able to use cards to generate extra sub-actions, and even the political track gives you an idea of where a new VP space will appear. I like the scalability of the game, both to a given number of players but also in terms of length. I really like the stacking element, in that you can come in with an agent early, making it much less appealing to attack a given space as you're more or less handing it over to the enemy (Note: I may not have this rule right, as you won't run into this situation with two players).

So what didn't I like? Well, the chaos of the political track is still chaos, and as demonstrated in our second game can have a huge effect on the outcome. In a four player game, all but one of the nine PT spaces will be revealed, although in that case you're also looking at one of four players will probably get the space, and they can't use it until they take their Development action anyway, so this may actually be less of a problem with more players. I've already mentioned the component issues. I also wish that there was *some* differentiation between the various powers - In WoW:tBG, you were limited to specific race/class combinations, and couldn't have a rogue on both the Horde and Alliance side, but every character was different. Here, no difference at all other than what pastel color you'll have and your headquarters piece.

All of that said, it's no Twilight Imperium 3, unlike Thunder's Edge. (Inside joke for WBC-West'ers). Because I don't really care for either of those games at all. No, EVE: Conquests is a much more stripped down game that may or may not evoke the spirit of the MMORPG. Given some of the stories Jesse was telling me as we played, I'm not sure how it could. You see, the MMORPG is set up so that you are unlikely to spend much of your time in every area on the board unless you had a *lot* of time on your hands and really liked exploring. The joint is huge. Also, given the high levels of customization present in the MMORPG, you're not going to see that in any sense in this game, which takes place on a strategic level that you don't get online. You may belong to a large economic consortium, but in general everything takes place at a much lower level.

That's actually a plus for the game, as it's not a slave to evoking an online experience. WoW:tBG is a lot of fun, but it's very long and is not without it's issues (which is why I prefer it two player or solitaire), most of which can be traced back to the change in medium. EVE avoids this entirely. However, it also means that there's no compelling reason to buy the game if you like the MMORPG. Fortunately, I think the game has a lot to recommend it on it's own merits, and I'm looking forward to playing it with more than two people - like most MPSGs, it works with two but should be more interesting with three or four.

At this point, I give a tentative recommendation for EVE, and will try to get it on the table in the near future, perhaps at a future Tuesday session if we have the right number of players. It's certainly better than a lot of the BGG reviews make it out to be, and I think that often the right play will not be as obvious as some might think.

No comments: